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Campaign cash flows into Georgia PSC races

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the impact of a 2011 campaign finance law as it relates to the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC). The 2011 state law addressed entities regulated by the PSC and the rules governing their political giving. Individuals who work for regulated entities were allowed to give personal contributions in PSC races prior to the 2011 law and the new law did not impact that right.

The six candidates running for the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) have raised starkly different amounts of money, with one candidate shattering recent fundraising records by taking in more than $1 million while another has reported less than $5,000.

Lindy Miller, the Democratic challenger running against two-term Republican incumbent, Chuck Eaton, for the District 3 seat, has raised more money than any PSC candidate in recent memory. By contrast, Eaton had raised almost $274,000, while Ryan Graham, a Libertarian in the District 3 race, had received $ 7,736, according to campaign finance reports for the period ending Sept. 30.

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The influx of donations to Miller may have been prompted, in part, by the candidate’s policy positions that seem to be resonating with donors, according to Zachary Peskowitz, assistant professor of political science at Emory University.

“It’s very unusual for a utility regulator candidate to receive so many donations, particularly from small donors,” said Peskowitz.

Mark Woodall, the legislative chair at the Sierra Club, said citizens’ willingness to invest in a challenger’s campaign is an indicator that Georgians are ready for change at the commission.

“I think if we are able to elect some independent minded people, that would be a great thing for the people of Georgia,” said Woodall.

Still, that level of donor enthusiasm hasn’t reached the the District 5 race where incumbent Tricia Pridemore has raised $263,550, while her Democratic challenger Dawn Randolph has taken in $61,371. District 5 Libertarian candidate John Turpish has raised $4,959.

While the money may not be an indicator of who is going to win, Peskowitz said a candidate’s ability to attract small contributions may be indicative of Election Day support.

“We have shown that when you step out of that bubble and reach out to people to talk about their concerns and hopes, voters are ready to engage,” said Miller, an executive in the solar industry, who attributes her fundraising results to her grassroots campaign.

For Eaton, it’s not the first time he has faced a well-funded opponent. In 2006, he defeated incumbent David Burgess, who had raised $668,861 that year. That was the most money raised by a PSC candidate during the past 12 years until Miller’s effort this election cycle, according to state campaign finance records. Eaton said the contest with Miller is “very competitive” but he remains confident.

“It don’t think (money) translates to votes at all,” he said.

The five-member commission, which is a relatively unknown government body, has far-reaching impact across the state. Commissioners serve staggered six-year terms and they decide rates consumers pay for their electric and natural gas bills. They also approve the state’s energy plans, including the mix of energy sources to meet demand.

An ethics watchdog group filed a complaint with the state last Friday against Eaton and Pridemore, claiming their campaigns had failed to properly identify donations they received from industries regulated by the commission.

The Georgia Ethics Watchdog identified 80 alleged violations representing $68,375 that went to Pridemore’s campaign and 63 alleged violations representing $73,000 that went to Eaton.

The incumbents’ campaigns have dismissed the complaints as “frivolous and politically-motivated.”

A review of campaign records by the AJC revealed that Eaton identified 21 percent of his donations as having come from individuals linked to the industry. Pridemore identified 8 percent in that category.

“Tricia Pridemore has not only complied fully with the law, she is actually the person who notified the Ethics Commission that its disclosure form for Public Service Commission candidates was incorrect and was missing a slot to report the required information,” her campaign spokesperson said via email.

For his part, Eaton questioned the timing of the complaint, adding that his reports were filed correctly. Eaton says his decisions have not been influenced by any donations and he fires back that Miller’s the one who has ethical concerns. He said her solar business creates a conflict of interest. Miller has said she will sell the company if elected to the commission.

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